The Tea Horse Road traces its roots back to the Tang Dynasty. Tea and other products were transported to Tibet to be traded for much needed horses. The Tea Horse Road starts in the tea producing regions of Xishuangbanna in Yunnan and winds its way north through Dali, Lijiang, Yangjing and Litang in Sichuan, before eventually ending in Lhasa. Sometimes the tea and horses were transported in stages, having men bring the goods only between two select points on the road. But often, men made the entire journey in one go, able to make one round trip per year.
Our own Tea Horse Road adventure began in the township of Pu'er, approximately 400 kilometers south of Kunming. The excursion passed through some of the mountains and steep valleys that are signatures of the Yunnan landscape. Eventually, the corn and wheat along the roadside gave way to bananas, rubber and, eventually, tea.
Driving south out of the city of Pu'er and up into the hills and their accompanying clouds, we entered our first plantation of the trip. Despite being recently purchased by the Deepure Tea Group, the plantations cannot help but feel ancient. Pu'er tea has been cultivated in this part of China for over 1,700 years and was originally known as pucha (普茶), or 'common tea'.
It was a winter morning when we visited, so the fields were quiet and empty of people. In spring or fall, early mornings would see these fields crowded with farmers harvesting the newest and freshest tea leaves of the day. With clouds slowly blowing through — sometimes giving way to bright sunshine and blue skies, but sometimes closing up altogether — the tea fields put on an excellent show. We wandered through the plantation, up and down slopes and into a few villages, before heading back to Pu'er. The villages through which we passed were also quiet, save for the typical dogs and geese wandering about. Not many people around to talk to and get more information about the fields. One gets the idea that being company-owned, the villages have a more seasonal rhythm than in the past.
Once we had a taste of Pu'er tea, we wanted to get to the start of it all — to the origins of the Ancient Tea Horse Road (茶马古道). Yunnan has six famed tea mountains, all of which are located in Xishuangbanna. Roughly 200 kilometers southeast of Pu'er, lies the village of Yiwu (易武), near the border of Laos. This is where one of the famous mountains is located, and is also one of the starting points of the trade route.
Today, however, Yiwu is a village in transition. Centuries-old houses are quickly being replaced by the standard cement cubes and bathroom tiled buildings that are so common throughout the country. We were happy to arrive when we did, as only a few of the houses had been changed. However, construction down the road made it clear that many more such buildings were on the way. We stopped in one house and talked to the owner, who said his home has stood for over 200 years and housed seven generations of tea farmers and merchants. Previously, the house had been a tea shop in the village.
After wandering throughout the early morning, we heard music and singing voices coming out of one small house. A church service! Hymns were being sung by the local people in a converted home. We decided to stop in and have a look. I was given a hymnal written in pinyin and Chinese characters, and tried my best to follow along. I looked over the other hymnals and bibles. Some had Chinese with pinyin, some were written in Yi minority script, while others were in Hani and Romanized Miao. Miao was particularly interesting to see in the Roman alphabet, and contained a lot of X's and Z's.
We ate lunch with another farmer that moved to the region from Honghe to make a living in rubber farming. Tea, rubber and bananas are by far the biggest industries in the region and a big year was coming up for him as, after a decade of waiting, his rubber trees had finally matured to the point of production. He explained to us that Christianity had only recently spread to the village about two or three years ago. The man was not clear how or why it had come to Yiwu, but judging by local church attendance and enthusiasm, it had become quite popular.
After lunch, we went to purchase some tea leaves. We met a shop owner, had some tea, and discussed the goings on of Yiwu. The shop owner told us she is planning to sell more than ten acres of her land to a big tea company. Currently, the tea farms in Yiwu are all privately operated, but that is going to change fast. It will bring more development and cash into the region, but hopefully not at the expense of the local culture.
After Yiwu, we decided to continue following the Tea Horse Road and check out one of the first stopping points along the old trail, the tiny village of Nakeli (那柯里村). After walking along the caravan route, this would be the first village that merchants would reach after leaving Pu'er. The town has been renovated by the government, but has kept its traditional houses and atmosphere.
There was a working watermill in the village that was still grinding away, making cornmeal, when we showed up. The Tea Horse Road still winds its way through the village, and we were able to hike along for several kilometers. One can still see the centimeters-deep hoof prints in the stone path, as well as marks left by the innumerable walking sticks of merchants.
We had lunch at the only restaurant in town, and were able to speak with the owner. We had many questions about the Tea Horse Road, and he said that his grandmother, Luo Wenfang (罗文芳), would be better able to answer them. Mrs Luo is 93 years-old and impeccably sharp. She grew up during the times of the tea merchants and worked as a stable hand. Her job was to feed and take care of the horses while the merchants traded wares or rested at one of the nearby inns. She mentioned the village was too small and too close to nearby Ning'er (宁洱) to have a big marketplace. Also, only the wealthier merchants trading goods such as tools, jewelry, and other expensive products — including opium — were able to stay at the inns and pay for stables.
Interestingly, the men transporting tea were often too poor to stay in the towns and villages and would often just sleep in the wild taking care of the horses on their own. But Luo's family actually did very well during the days of the Tea Horse Road and became quite rich. This caused them some trouble during the Cultural Revolution, when the poorer locals in the area accused them of being landlords. They fled the village and went to Ning'er for a couple of years before returning with proof from the government that they had not received wealth from land ownership, but instead from the Tea Horse Road.
The Cultural Revolution brought the automobile to Nakeli, signaling the end of dependence on horses. Luo's family subsequently lost most of their wealth. She said she once would wear her qipao (旗袍) almost daily, but then she had to cut it up to make baby clothes. Her grandson, with his restaurant, has brought some prosperity back to the family. As we spoke, Luo's son happily showed off relics from the heyday of the Tea Horse Road.
They had horse bells, a lantern, bamboo lunch boxes, a jewelry box and, perhaps most curiously, a small World War II era crate from the United States Army. The man said that the Americans dropped some bombs near the village during the war and he found the crate near the village soon after the war ended. A lot of local history, I thought, in this tiny village, Tea Horse Road and otherwise.
The final stop on our Tea Horse Road tour was Ning'er. After talking to several locals, it turned out that the town was a big crossroads and market town on the trade route, not Pu'er as we had expected. Ning'er was also once the location of the government offices for the entire Pu'er region.
These days, the town has quieted down a bit and the government has moved to Pu'er. However, the parks, shops, and people still hold onto some of the Tea Horse Road charm. One can find hints of tea culture in the food as well. There is a spicy sauce made with tea, and is mainly used for dipping freshly steamed tea leaves. A tad bitter these days, but come spring, it should be quite tasty! The Pu'er tea industry is growing rapidly and bringing change to these quiet villages. We recommend going as soon as possible to catch a glimpse of the glory days of the most famous ancient trade route in Yunnan.
Beginning from Pu'er, buses to Yiwu take roughly five hours. Reaching Nakeli is a bit more difficult. First, one must go to Pu'er and hire a car, as it seems no public buses pass through Nakeli. This trip takes takes about 90 minutes. Ning'er can be reached by buses departing from Kunming's South Bus Station.
All uncredited images: Michael Harrell© Copyright 2005-2022 GoKunming.com all rights reserved. This material may not be republished, rewritten or redistributed without permission.